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The Challenges of NGOs in Russia

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Before discussing specific challenges and issues experienced by NGOs in developing countries, it is essential to define NGOs and provide brief information related to the classification of NGOs, their activities, purposes, and goals. Undoubtedly, NGOs can be considered an integral part of civil society because it helps to promote civic values and solve problems related to various domains of people’s life. Because of underdeveloped political and legal systems, developing countries, particularly governments of developing countries, are often unable to function properly according to international law and general principles of democracy.

That is why NGOs are often created in developed countries with the help of international organizations or with the help of the local population. NGOs have several main characteristics, which are non-political, non-commercial, voluntary, non-governmental, and accountable (Bromideh, 2011). Interestingly, different authors provide different classifications of NGOs. However, NGOs can generally be classified into organizations that work independently or as organizations that work alongside bilateral aid agencies from developed countries, local governments, self-help associations, private-sector infrastructure operators, and others (Werker & Ahmed, 2008).

The statistics indicate that the number of NGOs and the amount of funding provided to these organizations is constantly growing. According to Werker & Ahmed (2008), in 2004, high-income countries invested about $2 billion in NGOs. Unfortunately, governments of certain developing countries often consider NGOs a threat, resulting in various problems and challenges experienced by such organizations. This issue is widespread in countries influenced by the political struggle in the 20th century between the U.S. and the USSR. For instance, numerous NGOs are experiencing huge problems in Iran, which considers the United States a threat, or in the modern-day Russian Federation.

Factors Leading to NGO Challenges in the Russian Federation

The situation around NGOs in the Russian Federation can be considered one of the most disturbing in modern international politics. This is because of the growing tension between Western countries and pro-Russian countries. NGOs in the Russian Federation experienced extreme pressure. This pressure occurred after the adoption of The Russian 2006 NGO law, known as “On Introducing Amendments into Certain Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation,” and consequently, additional legislation in 2012 known as “On Amendments to Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation regarding the Regulation of the Activities of Non-profit Organisations Performing the Functions of a Foreign Agent” which is also referred to as “foreign agents” law (Crotty et al., 2014). These laws were widely criticized by the international community as well as by advocates of democracy in Russia; according to the November 21 report of Human Rights Watch (HRW), at least 14 environmental organizations had to stop their work (2017).

According to HRW, this law targeted numerous NGOs working on environmental issues, human rights, health, and refugees, as well as providing help and support to people suffering from HIV abuse and supporting victims of the USSR political regime. As a result of this law, it becomes impossible for many NGOs to function properly and exist. Unfortunately, this law is not the only problem related to NGOs working in the Russian Federation, and the list of problems experienced by NGOs is enormous.

Why Russia Adopted Unfriendly NGO Laws?

Several important factors led the Russian Federation to develop such unfriendly NGO laws, which should be discussed to understand why there is a confrontation between the Russian government and NGOs. Crotty et al. (2014) claim that because of incomplete regulation after the collapse of the USSR, numerous NGOs have emerged in the Russian Federation. Unfortunately, some of these NGOs were used by criminal organizations as well as by commercial organizations to obtain certain benefits and protect their interest. Moreover, certain NGOs were created in order to obtain overseas grant money, which was used inappropriately or even stolen by nongovernmental individuals. Furthermore, the government of the Russian Federation believed that NGOs were directly involved in so-called “Colour Revolutions” and considered them as a threat to the existing political regime.

Numerous international organizations, including HRW, report that there are numerous problems related to human rights in the Russian Federation. NGOs working in Russia and reporting human rights violations are considered a threat to this country’s international reputation. Therefore, the government is directly interested in prohibiting and controlling such organizations (Crotty et al., 2014). It should also be noted that the political regime in the Russian Federation has features of authoritarianism. Therefore, the government strives to control everything by using various leverages of pressure.

Obviously, it is quite difficult to find leverage pressure for NGOs, especially for NGOs whom international organizations finance, because they function independently from the government. Therefore, the decision to adopt such strict laws is quite rational from the standpoint of the Russian government. At the same time, it is absolutely inappropriate from the standpoint of international law and democracy.

What Are the Three Main Types of NGOs in Russia?

According to scholarly literature, there are three main types of NGOs in Russia. The first type is marionette organizations, which government officials usually create. Such organizations are totally controlled by the government and are used to create an image that developed civil society exists in the Russian Federation. Unfortunately, such organizations create huge challenges for traditional NGOs because they undermine people’s trust in any NGOs in Russia. The second type is referred to as grassroots organizations. These NGOs are predominantly local; they don’t pay any money to staff, and it is rather difficult for them to get funds from the Russian government as well as from international organizations (Crotty et al., 2014). The final type of NGO is the traditional one, meaning that such organizations are able to have paid staff and are financed predominantly from international sources.

It is also necessary to note that the Russian Federation is still considered a developing country despite economic growth and relative economic stability. For instance, it is stated in the study by Calá et al. (2016) as well as by MAAR (2018) report. Because of political conflicts with international organizations, the U.S., and the European Union, there are certain economic problems in Russia, including high poverty rates, low median wages, as well as low local purchasing power. Additionally, the Russian Federation experiences drug-related, environmental, HIV/AIDS, and other problems. According to the AVERT organization, there was 0.8-1% of adult HIV prevalence in the Russian Federation in 2016.

Specific Challenges Related to NGOs in the Russian Federation

Hundreds of examples can perfectly illustrate the pressure faced by NGOs in Russia. Of course, one of the most known examples is Alexey Navalny and the Anti-Corruption Foundation. Before becoming a politician, Alexey Navalny was quite a popular blogger who discussed the problem of corruption and made his own investigations on cases of corruption (Gambarato & Medvedev, 2015). Eventually, he was able to create an NGO, which is financed by its supporters in Russia as well as in other countries. All investigations made by the Anti-Corruption Foundation were quite popular and caused huge social dissatisfaction.

As can be expected, the NGO created by Alexey Navalny started to experience various problems induced by the Russian government. For instance, there were several cases when the police confiscated computers and data storage devices. Alexey himself was accused of being involved in corruption. However, later, he was justified.

Moreover, the Russian government has created a governmental organization known as the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology, and Mass Media that could block any information without the court’s decision within several minutes. This executive body was threatening to block YouTube in Russia if Navalny refused to delete his investigations from YouTube (Luxmoore, 2018). So, as can be seen, NGOs that can cause any potential harm to the Russian political regime face serious challenges, and it becomes rather difficult for such organizations to function effectively.

Another well-known example of NGOs facing problems in Russia is George Soros, who finances the Open Society Foundation and the Open Society Institute’s Assistance Foundation. The Russian government has included both these organizations in the “undesirable organizations” list (Walker, 2017). These organizations provided help and support to various civil rights movements and human rights organizations. The thing is that local donors in Russia will never support organizations protecting human rights in this country because the government may consider such activity as a threat to their own interests. Therefore, international funding is the main funding source for organizations protecting citizens from violating their human rights.

The situation with civil and basic human rights remains quite poor in Russia, and in many cases, these rights are violated by the government. Therefore, the government is not interested in providing NGOs with resources that can be used to undermine the legitimacy of the government and make Russia’s reputation worse. Undoubtedly, one of the biggest problems experienced by NGOs is lack of financing. According to Javeline (2017), lack of funds is considered the main problem by NGOs in Russia. Among the other fears NGOs have is governmental pressure and being labeled as “foreign agents.”

Many organizations are not related to civil rights movements. However, these organizations still suffer from various issues. As mentioned above, there are various environmental issues in Russia, like in every country. For instance, there is a paper mill on Lake Baikal, which constantly pollutes it. Numerous people also suffer from radioactive pollution during various radiation accidents. Of course, there is a problem of deforestation (HRW, 2017).

Many NGOs dealing with these issues were included on the “foreign agent” registry. The government destroyed some of these organizations by imposing unreasonable fines, and many environmental NGOs had to shut down (HRW, 2017). One of the brightest examples is Planet of Hopes NGO, which conducted environmental monitoring and helped people who were exposed to radiation because they lived in so-called “closed cities.” These cities were established in the USSR to host various military facilities, including nuclear ones (HRW, 2017). This organization has published numerous articles emphasizing that it is needed to make a legal campaign providing money and support to radiation victims and other articles describing laws related to working conditions in dangerous environments.

Compliance Theories Explaining the Current Situation in The Russian Federation

Rationalism claims that states, as strategic actors, are interested in pursuing their personal interests, and in many cases, such interests contradict international laws and result in violations of human rights. States are ready to comply with certain norms or abide by certain laws only if potential benefits outweigh potential costs (Brunne, 2003). Countries don’t care about moral norms, principles, or international laws. Of course, a direct violation of international laws and rules can create various problems. Therefore, countries often invent various mechanisms and strategies, allowing them to create an illusion that no laws and rules were violated.
As mentioned at the beginning of this paper, the confrontation between first-world and third-world countries in the 20th century was quite intense.

It should be noted that the term “first-world countries” refers to the countries allied with the U.S., including European countries, South Korea, etc., while the term “third-world countries” refers to countries allied with the USSR. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the Russian Empire considered European countries as Enemies because of WWI as well as revolution. Moreover, the distrust towards Western countries has become even bigger during the WWII, when Nazi Germany and allied countries attacked USSR. Later, there was a Cold War when the U.S. supported European countries with the help of the Truman Doctrine. Moreover, there were numerous conflicts involving the U.S. forces and USSR forces. For instance, during the Vietnam War, the Iran-Iraq war, the Korean War, and even in the modern World, there is a conflict in Syria where both Russian and U.S. forces are involved.

Apparently, all these facts indicate that from a rational point of view, there was always competition or even hidden confrontation between Western countries and Russia. Therefore, from a rational point of view, Russia considers all Western countries as a threat. In fact, one of the reasons why Russia has annexed Crimea is that they were afraid of having a NATO military base on this territory. Unfortunately, such indirect confrontation results in huge problems for NGOs in the Russian Federation. NGOs that are financed by international funding sources are considered harmful and potentially dangerous. In fact, they can be dangerous for the Russian political regime. Of course, people who have power and money don’t want to lose them, and as a result, they create huge barriers to NGOs.

Another huge fact that explains problems caused by NGOs from a rationalist’s perspective is that there are huge problems related to democracy in Russia. The president and a group of people close to the president control all governmental bodies. Western World is based on the principles of democracy, while Russia has a long history of tsarism. In the modern world, “tsarism” is impossible without violating international laws and principles. Therefore, Russia creates an illusion of democracy and has some marionette organizations working for the government. So, there is no place left for independent NGOs who prove that, in fact, there is no democracy and that there are huge problems related to corruption, ecology, and human rights.

According to rationalism, enforcing compliance by providing sanctions, such as fines, trade restrictions, and others, is needed. All these mechanisms are already used; however, they are not effective. For instance, each year, the number of applications regarding human rights violations in the European Court Of Human Rights is constantly growing (ECHR, 2018). Still, instead of trying to make the situation with human rights better, Russia ignores many decisions of the ECHR and even wants to withdraw from the Convention on Human Rights and end cooperation with the European Court of Human Rights. The Russian government explains it because “many of the court’s decisions ran counter to Russia’s interests.” (Griffin, 2018).

The international community has no effective leverage of pressure to make Russia stop violating human rights as well as to create an environment where NGOs could work effectively and without experiencing any problems. Even sanctions and trade restrictions can’t outweigh the benefits that the Russian government has from adopting “foreign agents” law and from systematic human rights violations. It is likely that in the near future, the situation won’t change for the better because of the political confrontation between Russia and Western countries and the current governmental system in Russia. Authoritarian governments are absolutely not interested in allowing NGOs to solve issues related to human rights violations because such governments are violators themselves.

Constructivist Theory and NGOs in Russia

It is rather difficult to analyze the situation related to NGOs in Russia from the constructivist standpoint because, de jure, there are norms of appropriate behavior existing in Russia; de facto, however, de facto, these norms don’t work or work only selectively. Only those NGOs whom international organizations do not finance are allowed to work. However, they still face huge problems because of bias and prejudice towards all NGOs in Russia that occurred in recent decades. Society doesn’t see that there is something bad in creating barriers to NGOs, and in fact, the government persuaded society that NGOs are bad by labeling them as “foreign agents.” The thing is that the “foreign agent” term is a synonym for “spy” or “traitor” that was quite widespread in the USSR (HRW, 2017).

That is why people have such a strong negative attitude toward NGOs. Constructivism emphasizes that socialization, social learning, as well as social norms are highly important for compliance Checkel (2001). Norms in modern Russia are created by government and state propaganda. Hence, people living in Russia have norms quite different from those living in Western countries. The results of recent elections indicate that the vast majority of people still trust their president and are satisfied with the situation related to NGOs in their country and Russia’s position in the global arena. Of course, this is not because people living in Russia are uncivilized or not because the country is developing, but rather because of the government-backed ideology of isolationism.

Hence, the concepts of social learning and socialization contradict the state’s current ideology, resulting in distorted social norms. Undoubtedly, it will be quite difficult to persuade Russia that compliance is highly important and that NGOs can contribute to the country’s welfare in the near future. Possibly, the situation will change when there is a new government and a new president, which will result in friendly relations with Western countries, cooperation with international organizations, and integration into the global civilized society. Unfortunately, for now, it is possible only for grassroots organizations to exist in Russia and for NGOs that are not interesting to the Russian government. However, with each passing year, the amount of such NGOs decreases.


While the Russian Federation has huge potential to make NGOs work effectively and contribute to social welfare, the current political situation and events that happened in the 20th century prevent this developing state from creating a democratic society where NGOs could support people and solve various problems. The government in Russia is trying to control as much as possible. However, it often results in negative consequences, such as the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Lake Baikal pollution, and human rights violations. Therefore, developing and implementing strategies that could change this status quo is essential. It can be recommended for international to spread information regarding issues that NGOs face in Russia and explain why this situation is bad for people living in Russia.

Moreover, there is no need to support NGOs protecting human rights, at least for now, because the Russian government can consider this a hostile action. International funding sources should mainly focus on NGOs dealing with environmental issues, poverty, and health-related problems. By providing support to NGOs that pose no potential threat to the government, it will be possible to improve the Russian government’s trust in such organizations, which will eventually make laws less strict and will lead to a change in social norms.

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